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Learning How Ants Work So Well Together

Growing up in Delmar, N.Y., a suburb of Albany, Thomas Hart always wanted to study biology and live in a big city. So when his father, a neurologist, passed along all he’d heard about Hunter’s Biology Department and Macaulay Honors College, Hart knew where he wanted to go to school.

His instincts were right. Hart ended up loving the entire Hunter experience, starting, he says, with “living in a dorm with a whole bunch of interesting and really talented classmates.” He describes those dormmates as “talented across the academic spectrum, from the arts and humanities to the natural sciences, and incredibly passionate about their studies.” 

Hart was able to pursue his own passion for biological science by joining the research team of Professor Lei Xie, a computational pharmacologist. With Professor Xie and other team members, he studied the diabetes drug metformin, investigating evidence that it might also be effective in treating cancer. To decipher the drug’s anti-cancer mechanisms, they developed digital methods of analyzing how it interacts with the body’s genes and proteins – and what happens when a patient has a specific genetic mutation. Hart was recognized for his contributions to these studies with a nomination for a national Goldwater Scholarship.

As an undergraduate he also participated in a summer computational-biology research program at Stanford University. And when the time came to apply to PhD programs, he chose Rockefeller University, because Rockefeller allowed him to stay in Manhattan and placed no restrictions on what he could do. “So I could try other things besides computational biology,” he says.

After spending his first year at Rockefeller rotating through different labs, he found a perfect home in the lab of Daniel Kronauer, who, Hart says, “is setting a new standard for the study of ants and the really cool social behavior of ant colonies.” The bigger questions, Hart adds, are, “How did this social structure evolve, and what does that show us about the evolution of social relationships across different organisms?”

Through an integrative approach that combines molecular genetics, neuroscience, and quantitative behavioral and structural measurements, Kronauer’s team is using one species –the clonal raider ant – as a new model for the study of social behavioral genetics. Hart says their experiments are designed to reveal the neural activity that occurs as ants perceive signals, process them in their brains, and exhibit certain social behaviors, and he hopes that later in his doctoral studies, “I can advance this work by applying the computational skills I learned at Hunter.”

His long-term goal is to stay in academia as a researcher and teacher while playing a role in communicating science to the general public. With a natural talent and self-taught skills in drawing, he would like to use the visual arts to engage people in the beauty and importance  of science.

“People are fascinated by ants,” he says. “There’s a lot of potential for turning that fascination into a learning experience.”

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